There were seven or eight of us, single file on the narrow track, black river on our right, wooded rise to the left, and we were on our way home. Night was well on and fatigue petered out the conversation. We had been walking since early afternoon, a decent trek, all the way out to the Lisnaree Road, where we crossed the bridge and headed back on this side of the river. It was one of those hikes we did a lot at that age, early adolescence; too old for the park, too young for the town. Out as far as we could go before having to turn back. The new game, testing limits, playing dare with distance. This time though, we misjudged and night overtook us. We walked with the flow of our river, the silent motion keeping us going, as if we were all returning, us to our beds, the river to her sea. Still a good way out from the Creamery, the path became difficult, kept slipping into undergrowth, entangling brambles and fallen trees at the foot of the high bank. Ancient barbed wire fences merged into thorn; nettles grew in pert abundance. Progress was slow; no moon, no torch, a darkness damp and bulky, thick with a soup of sodden, rotten wood, weighted in with mud and tired limbs. From out of the silence came a heavy noise, the sound of something in the brier. Fear caught fire in us, and someone shouted, fuck! and a girl screamed. Self-preservation shoved the queue forward and panic, real panic, propelled the lot of us, one body, one thumping heart, many legged, down the blind path. I remember seeing something, swear I did, a shifting shape, low and fast and striped. We didn’t stop till we were clear of the woods.
In dim meadow we stood panting wide-eyed, communing the hilarity of shared terror. Did you see it? No, you? I did, right next to us. Jesus! Whoops and belly laughs, you shoulda seen your face, you shoulda seen your own. And deep breaths. We all knew him – knew of him, claws and clamping jaws that never let go. For a moment there, back there in the close, we were trespassers, clumsy humans in the dark, blundering his domain.
Woken by adrenaline, walking again, clear-eyed across a broad field of cow pats and thistle, and Lindsey’s Bridge was in sight. Unanimous, we left the river, threw some stones goodbye and joined the main road. The tarmac was wet and the traffic hissed like high-toned waves. Black road on our right, the fields falling off to the left, noisy and hastened, we skipped and kicked and laughed our way downhill to the clustered lights of home.
(This piece was written for inclusion in the Ancient Britons edition of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)